“Such elegance and beautiful colour, even after dull, grey, filthy weather. So how do they do that?” asks Yvonne Cannon, head gardener at Holker Hall garden near Grange-over-Sands, as she looks out across the Summer Garden where formal beds are brimming over with tulips in full bloom.
Yvonne has worked here for around six years now, running the garden for Lord and Lady Cavendish, owners of Holker Hall, and although tulips feature highly here every spring, Yvonne never fails to be impressed by their colourful impact. “I worked in the South-east for many years before arriving at Holker Hall, but quickly realised that spring colour was even more important at this time of year in Cumbria than in more southerly areas. Winters are longer here, and therefore there is a need for as much spring colour as possible, as soon as possible. By planting a mixture of early, mid-season and late tulips, there is the possibility of producing swathes of colour from late March until mid-May.”
But as Yvonne points out, “The peak flowering season for the various groups of tulips can never really be predicted. It depends entirely on the weather, and the further north you garden, the more random this can be. The worst scenario is the arrival of a blast of cold, wet, windy weather when the tulips are in full bloom – they can be over in days when that happens.” Fortunately, though, tulips at Holker Hall are planted in large numbers – around 37,000 bulbs in autumn 2012. Bad weather won’t manage to thwart them all at once, so there is always an impressive display throughout spring.
In Britain, is difficult to imagine the month of April without tulips rising up from our gardens. This painted-petal, spring display is something that feels so familiar to us that we should be forgiven for thinking tulips have been growing in our gardens since gardening began. Within a botanical timeline, however, tulips are considered a fairly recent introduction to Europe.
It is thought that today’s large-flowered garden tulips originated from bulbs that were introduced to Europe courtesy of a Flemish diplomat who was also the Ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire to Sulemein the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The Ambassador recorded in a letter in 1554 that he was impressed by brilliantly coloured tulips he had seen growing in Turkish gardens, and he noted that bulbs producing the most exceptionally coloured flowers changed hands for considerable sums of money.
Around four decades later, seeds and bulbs began to arrive in Britain, mainly by circuitous routes. The story of a merchant in Antwerp receiving tulip bulbs concealed in a consignment of cloth from Constantinople tells of him deciding to eat a few before planting the others. Written instructions to a shipping factor in Constantinople refer to ‘Tulipas’ being brought to England from Constantinople via Vienna.
Amateur growers quickly amassed collections of tulips, and there was fierce competition to see who could produce the most flamboyant and colourful blooms. Those bulbs were then sold singly, and before long, vast amounts of money began to exchange hands between traders from Britain, Flanders, Germany, France and Holland. Tulipomania was born. The most exotic bulbs were sold by weight and treated just like gold. By 1637, the Dutch government decided the tulip situation was out of hand, and abruptly halted the inflationary monetary value attached to these plants. Chaos followed, thousands of traders lost their money, but the outcome was that bulb prices tumbled to more affordable levels.
By the 18th century, collectors and noblemen were still seeking and buying bulbs, especially those known as ‘broken’ tulips that display white or cream petals enhanced with feathered and fiery steaks of purple or red. Although there was a later phase when the cult of the tulip became ridiculed and the plant was no longer regarded as high fashion in the gardens of the gentry, a few enthusiasts continued collecting ‘English florists’’ tulips – those with the most distinctive and colourful, feathered and flamed markings on their petals. As gardening fashions evolved, commercial breeders and florists set up breeding programmes with the intention of producing the first short-stemmed tulip cultivars that could be used for large-scale bedding.
Tulips became more fashionable again and demand intensified for larger flowers and new colours. Plant breeders responded eagerly, and as a result of almost two centuries of work that is still on-going, there are now over 5,000 available named cultivars, with around 300 of those grown on a large scale in bedding schemes throughout Europe.
So, with a bewildering array of cultivars to choose from, how are the tulip colour schemes for each spring chosen for Holker Hall garden? Yvonne explains that it is a fairly straightforward process that begins as soon as bulb catalogues arrive in the post. “Lady Cavendish and I sit down in late summer with a big pot of coffee, surrounded by bulb catalogues, and we discuss which bulbs we think would be suitable. Colour schemes for bedding and containers in the formal areas of the garden are far from random because they are dictated by a three-year cyclical rotation of spring bedding plants that will accompany the tulips. We choose the tulips to match the bedding plants. This spring, in 2013, primulas and primroses are partnering the tulips – next year it will be the turn of wallflowers, the following year it will be pansies and violas. But if we were choosing cultivars outwith the constraints of colour schemes, I know that ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Angelique’ are two that Lady Cavendish would consider to be favourites.”
When I asked Yvonne about her own favourite cultivars, she replied, “I am very fond of the new multi-headed tulips, especially ‘Candy Club’. This group of tulips flowers for weeks on end, and because there are several flower heads to each stem, the effect is even more striking. I am also keen on red and white tulips. ‘Ice Cream’ is a new cultivar with a stunning combination of those colours that is visually amazing.” Indeed, it is true; a quick look online at one of the latest bulb catalogues shows this cultivar in full bloom – each flower resembling a mound of white ice-cream surrounded by a bright pink and green cone.
Apart from their use in formal bedding in the Summer Garden, and in ornamental urns and containers throughout the property, tulips are also used at Holker Hall garden in an informal and inspiring way. Every autumn, included with the delivery of bulbs, are several sackfuls of a special mix of tulips for naturalising. They are planted into grassy areas, and in spring they create a bright, scattered gemstone effect beneath the stilted limes, in the meadow, and close to the private back door. When I first saw these areas of naturalised tulips, I assumed they had been formed by the replanted cast-offs from the formal bedding areas when tulip bulbs are removed after they have finished flowering. I was very wrong. Yvonne explained that all the faded tulips from the formal beds go straight to the compost heap when spring bedding is removed at the end of May. “There is little point in spending time and labour replanting bulbs if their ability to flower in consecutive years is limited. We treat the tulip bulbs in formal areas just like annuals, but the bulbs we buy in for naturalising are specially selected for their ability to thrive and repeat-flower in grassy areas.”
But over the years, Yvonne has also noticed that this is not quite so cut and dried. “Tulips in plain colours such as yellow, orange and red will, in fact, flower well again in following years in grassy areas after being removed from the formal beds and replanted. I think the red tulips have more vigour because they have been less intensively bred. I do like to see areas of red tulips naturalised in grass in spring because there is such a close visual comparison to be made with red poppies flowering in meadows in high summer. Red tulips remind me of warmer things to come.”
Amongst the naturalised tulips, small yellow flowers of Tulipa sylvestris look exceptionally delicate as they mingle amongst the taller cultivars. This little tulip is one of the mainstays of these wilder areas and Yvonne knows why it does so well here. ‘Soil at Holker Hall is freely draining, and because many species of tulips originate in fairly dry and hilly regions of the world, this tulip is content not only to flower freely, but also spread further afield each year.’
Every year, tulip breeders seem to retain their capacity to surprise us. Just as Yvonne adores newly released ‘Ice Cream’, I am attracted to many of the recently introduced fringed tulips. Tulips can be classified into at least 15 officially recognised groups, depending on their flower shape, flowering period, colour, markings and size. Triumph, parrot, lily-flowered and Darwin hybrid tulips are a few examples of the groups. Fringed tulips were one of the latest to be granted their own special group; these tulips have petals with uniquely pinked edges that look as if they have been dipped in a layer of frost crystals. Gardeners seem quite divided over this group; the feathery tips to the petals are too contrived and fussy for many, but irresistible to others. I fall into the latter camp, and without any doubt, my favourite tulip is ‘Lambada’. Peachy coloured petals have intensely and randomly fringed edges, and it will flower reliably until the second week in May. The combination of sunset colouring and crystalline edging leaves me amazed at the beauty within the world of tulips. I, too, am left wondering just how they do it.
(Holker Hall Garden opening times; t: 015395 58328 , www.holker.co.uk)